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UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Monday 28 February 2005

COTE D IVOIRE: Pro-government militia group attacks rebel outpost on frontline

ABIDJAN, 28 Feb 2005 (IRIN) - A large group of pro-government fighters attacked a rebel outpost on the frontline in western Cote d'Ivoire before dawn on Monday, but 87 of the assailants were subsequently arrested by UN peacekeeping troops.

The rebel New Forces movement said this latest attack by forces loyal to President Laurent Gbagbo had finally killed off faltering mediation efforts by South African President Thabo Mbeki on behalf of the African Union (AU) to revive the flagging peace process in Cote d'Ivoire.

But as news of the attack filtered out, a special envoy of Gbagbo told Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, the chairman of the AU, that the president wanted to keep the AU mediation process alive.

The UN Mission in Cote d'Ivoire (ONUCI) said in a statement there had been "an early morning attack launched by a group of armed men against a New Forces check point" in the town of Logouale.

This is the first town in rebel-controlled territory on the main road from Abidjan to western Cote d'Ivoire. It lies 15 km southeast of the rebel-held city of Man and 510 km northwest of the capital Abidjan.

Without giving details of the engagement, ONUCI said: "87 armed men were detained and have been visited by representatives of the Red Cross. They will later be handed over to the appropriate authorities. Their weapons and ammunition were also seized."

ONUCI said one of its own soldiers had been wounded by two bullets fired by the attackers and was receiving treatment in a French military hospital in central Cote d'Ivoire.

"ONUCI deplores this attack and considers that it could only result in unhelpful threats to the peace process at a time when the international community and the South African mediators and all the actors in the Ivorian conflict are making efforts to reach a political solution to the crisis," it added.

The New Forces rebel movement, which controls the northern half of Cote d'Ivoire, said in a statement that the rebel garrison in Logouale was attacked at 5am local time by "forces under the control of Laurent Gbagbo."

"Umpteenth violation"

Recalling that Gbagbo had earlier sent his air force to bomb rebel positions in the north in November last year, the rebel statement said Monday's attack was simply the government's "umpteenth violation of the ceasefire."

"By these acts of war, Mr Laurent Gbagbo has just buried for good the mediation efforts of South Africa and the international community," the statement added.

Gbagbo assumed full responsibility for launching three days of air raids against rebel-held cities in early November in preparation for a ground offensive that failed to take place.

But Colonel Jules Yao-Yao, the official spokesman of the government armed forces, said the army had nothing to do with Monday's attack on Logouale.

The raid appears to have been carried out by one of the many pro-Gbagbo militia groups that have proliferated alongside the army in the government-held south of Cote d'Ivoire since the West African country plunged into civil war in September 2002.

Reports of an imminent militia attack on rebel positions in the volatile west of Cote d'Ivoire had been circulating for several days.

ONUCI spokesman Hamadoun Toure told IRIN that a group of men wearing red armbands and armed with AK-47 automatic rifles attacked a rebel checkpoint in Logouale. It was unclear whether the rebels had returned fire, he added.

Some reports said the rebel fighters had simply fled.

The rebels did not give details of casualties sustained in the attack, but an official of Medecins Sans Frontieres, which runs the hospital in nearby Man, said the rebels had brought several men into the hospital with bullet wounds shortly after the incident.

One US aid worker in Man told IRIN by telephone there had been a number of injuries, but no deaths in the attack. One of his own employees had been injured in the crossfire, he added.

Residents in the government-held sector of western Cote d'Ivoire contacted by IRIN said the attackers were believed to be either members of a pro-government militia or a gang of local youths who had started an uprising against the rebels.

Notre Voie, the newspaper of Gbagbo's ruling Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), reported on Monday that youths of the Yacouba ethnic group were preparing an offensive on rebel-held villages around Man.

The Yacouba are usually considered to be pro-rebel. The late General Robert Guei, who led a military government from 1999 to 2000 and was killed at the start of the civil war, apparently by pro-Gbagbo forces, was a Yacouba.

But several people contacted by IRIN in the west pointed the finger instead at a recently formed militia group called MILOCI, which recruits mainly from members of the We ethnic group. The We have traditionally been pro-Gbagbo.

Security stepped up after rumours

On Saturday, French peacekeepers stepped up patrols in the region with jeeps and helicopters following rumours that an attack was imminent.

The situation in Man remained tense after the gunfight at Logouale. One resident who gave her name as Clemence, told IRIN. "We're hiding inside and we heard that all the rebels have gone to the frontline."

But French military spokesman, Colonel Henri Aussavy, told IRIN that calm had returned. "Everything is under control," he said."What remains to be seen if this was a one-off incident or a coordinated action."

ONUCI has a 6,240-strong peacekeeping force in Cote d'Ivoire which patrols a buffer zone along the front line. It is supported by a 4,000-strong French peacekeeping force under independent command. The French have a specific mandate to intervene rapidly in hotspots in the event of trouble.

They stopped Gbagbo's planned offensive in November by disabling the jet bombers and attack helicopters of his small air force on the ground.

A major question mark now hangs over international efforts to revive the January 2003 Linas-Marcoussis peace agreement, which was due to pave the way for rebel disarmament and general elections in October.

Mbeki was brought in by the AU as a special mediator to put Marcoussis back on the rails following the government air raids on the north in November.

On Monday, as news of the attack on Logouale filtered out, Gbagbo sent a delegation led by Ottro Zirignon Toure, the deputy chief of staff of the presidency, to Abuja to persuade Obasanjo to keep the AU mediation process alive.

"They requested the President's intervention in resolving fully and finally the crisis in Cote d'Ivoire," Obasanjo's spokeswoman Remi Oyo said after the meeting.

She declined to comment on the latest skirmish on the frontline, but said the Nigerian leader was still supportive of the mediation process.

"The president...believes that the crisis in Cote d'Ivoire will be resolved successfully, as was the case in Togo, Sao Tome, Sierra Leone and even Liberia," Oyo said.

In South Africa, Mbeki's official spokesman, Bheki Khumalo, said the authorities in Pretoria were still trying to confirm the nature of the incident. But he added that until now, quiet talks to resolve a key sticking points in the peace process, had been going well.

"Everything is on track. The (mediation) team met with all the rebel groups and everyone has expressed confidence in the process," he told IRIN.

[ENDS]



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